The concept proposed herein, probably will not meet with abandoned acclaim especially by anglers, but, hopefully, it will evoke a consideration.
Let’s start at the beginning.
The winter of 2009-2010 was brutally cold here in Southwest Florida. That’s right ... cold. Vacationers wrapped in eclectic swaddling clothes were everywhere; holidays were cut short on the premise of “just as cold as back home but $300 a day cheaper”; and, yes, we scraped light frost off the windshield a couple of times.
But the Armageddon event occurred one weekend in early February. A massive cold front that had blanketed the north descended on the Florida peninsula. It swept in with such speed that it plummeted our air temperatures some thirty plus degrees overnight.
The result was discomforting for our residents and visitors alike but it produced a tragedy for our waterborne wildlife. Unheard of water temperatures ranging from 42 to 47 degrees were recorded everywhere. The air was so cold that the shallower the water the colder it got.
Now, wildlife has innate survival skills. Normally, as water temperature would get colder they move to deeper water where there is more of a temperature gradient.
This cold came on so quickly that they literally froze in place.
The fish kill was enormous with all species taking an enormous hit. But the species hardest hit were the snook. The snook carcasses were stacked like cordwood along the beaches and the waterways. The area down along shallow Gullivan Bay essentially had their world famous snook fishery annihilated.
Florida Fish and Wildlife took immediate action and closed the snook fishery to harvest initially until September 2010. They reevaluated the stock levels then and, because the rebuilding was critically slow closed it until September of this year.
Bottom line the snook harvest will have been closed for a year and a half by then, and may be extended further if the biomass numbers are still critical.
Now we come to the controversial issue. You can still catch snook; just can’t harvest them. Almost everyone fishing the backcountry has had occasion to hook a snook while fishing for snapper or sheepshead or even redfish. That’s OK; you carefully release.
But how about if you fill your bait well with live bait and deliberately target snook? Right or wrong?
Before you answer, consider release mortality. It comes in two versions; the fish that are DOA before they are tossed back and additionally what is called cryptic mortality, or the demise of the catch unbeknownst later because of catch handling, hook damage etc. The Florida Wildlife Commission estimates that the combined mortality caused by catch and release can be as high as 42 percent; four out of every 10 snook caught and released don’t make it.
Like to wrap a little story around this issue that happened this past spring.
The telephone inquiry began normal enough. The preliminary inquiries of cost, availability, number of passengers slid by easily until we hit the key issue.
“We’d like to target snook. Can you handle that?” was not an unfamiliar question but I think my answer was.
“I can handle the snook fishing, but will not target them specifically right now.” Dead silence on the other end until I got a “why not?”
Explaining the species closure and the critical importance to the stock restoration here in Southwest Florida held his attention until he interjected his total acceptance of catch and release. “We’ll put ‘em all back” was the way he put it.
Explaining the factors evident in release mortality and the eventual demise of the released fish was the last straw for my potential customer. Knew the discussion had enlightened him but he was dead set on doing some snook fishing regardless. We congenially ended the call.
Next evening our snook targeter called back. “This is Gene, I talked to you last night about targeting snook. Tell me, if we didn’t do snook, what would we go after?”
The conversation that followed was all about pompano, speckled trout, snapper, mackerel and redfish on light tackle all along the coastal backwaters of Marco Island and Naples. He bought on and we set a date.
The crew on the charter a week or so later was Gene and his two brother-in-laws. Nice guys and proficient anglers. On the way out, that morning, I asked what changed his mind on the primary snook focus.
“Well, I’m not totally sold on the mortality stuff but we always go for snook. There’s so much more out here and we thought we’d try it for a change”
Reasonable response and supercharged me to give them a show. And that’s just what we did. Maybe the piscatorial gods were smiling on us that morning and it became one of those trips where everything worked.
We started on pompano with jigs in Capri Pass. The pomps hadn’t been there for a week but they all showed up that morning. We were getting one or two nice size fish on tipped jigs on every pass. The brother-in-laws had never experienced the run and cut of the Florida pompano before and couldn’t get enough. We spent over an hour and the bite stayed strong even as the tide picked up steam. They wanted to stay; I wanted them to get other fishing experiences; I won and we moved nearshore to work one of the pass barges for Spanish mackerel.
Again a first for this crew who had thought the only fish alive was the snook. We hung a little chum in the water and tied on some flashy jigs. It didn’t take five minutes and we were into mackerel mayhem; two or three macks on at a time; crossed lines; cut offs etc. They were amazed at the speed and strength of the mackerel.
We moved again. This time a little more elusive target; the redfish. Back in Johnson Bay we changed the rigs to shrimp rigs under popping corks and were working a shoreline fronting a nice incoming tide. The gods continued to smile and we had two nice redfish in the 20” class within fifteen minutes which further dismissed the concept of “snook only”
Gene was a man of few words so it meant something when he said they had a good trip and learned something that day. One of his sentences I won’t forget “why would you specifically target a species under stress and then have the release kill elongate the stress and closure?”
Hope we all consider that.
Capt. Bill Walsh owns an established Marco Island charter fishing business and holds a current U.S. Coast Guard license. Send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.